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An Obama Primary Challenge?

The last thing I want to see happen in the 2012 election is a Republican take the White House.  But the next-to-last thing is pretty important to me, too: I don’t want to see the President’s military policies go unchallenged.  Barack Obama is, after all, authorizing illegal military drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen on top of running a war in Afghanistan that, among other things, even he has to know can’t succeed.  In real world terms these are not trivial matters – even if they go unmentioned in most assessments of how the President’s doing.  We – liberals, progressives, the left – can choose to ignore this if we want – that is, if we wish to be irrelevant in the next election.

It does look like there will be at least one candidate in next year’s presidential primaries opposing these policies – Republican Texas Congressman Ron Paul.  Paul, however, does not support the federal government taking a significant role in environmental protection, health care, reducing economic inequality and a lot of other things.  But unless antiwar Democrats do something, Paul’s libertarian campaign will represent the only significant 2012 primary season challenge to what he calls “America’s delusional foreign policy.”

It’s a year now since Harper’s Magazine publisher John R. MacArthur first publicly called for a challenge to Obama from the left.  And for a while the idea did gain a little traction, but it seemed to disappear when the President won a few legislative victories in the lame duck Congress.  Still, even those who hold fast to the Clinton-era “It’s the economy stupid” take on presidential politics can’t avoid asking to what better use the Afghanistan War’s $119 billion annual budget might be put in the midst of the greatest recession in seventy years.

The reason for the reluctance is, of course, to a great extent a legacy of Ted Kennedy’s 1980 primary challenge to Jimmy Carter followed by Ronald Reagan’s election.  Err in a hasty primary challenge and repent for a leisurely four years, the thinking goes.  Bill Clinton got a primary-free re-election in 1996 in some large part because of that take.  Longtime San Francisco community organizer Mike Miller sums up the current fear:

A perilous course being proposed by “progressives” that, if successful, will contribute to a Republican government—both houses of Congress and the White House—in 2012. That course is to nominate a ‘progressive’ to run against Obama in the primaries and, implicitly, sit out the election if Obama is the nominee.

If A, then B?  Is it impossible then to challenge the Administration in the way that really matters – electorally – without helping to usher in a President we’d find worse – both in domestic and foreign affairs?  Not an unreasonable fear, I’d say, yet not one that should prevent us from taking a broader look at the situation.

For one thing, while Clinton’s foreign policy may itself have left something to be desired (the U.S. did bomb Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan and Yugoslavia on his watch), nothing he did remotely approached the insanity of the current $1,000,000-a-year per soldier war with no perceptible goal other than to negotiate in the future with the Taliban enemy that we fight today.   So, in this case it’s not just nameless/faceless foreigners euphemistically referred to as “collateral damage”– there are Americans being asked to die.

As for the political dangers inherent in the enterprise, well Joe Biden ran against Barack Obama in 2008 and that seemed to work out all right.  To be sure, we would want a level-headed challenge, rather than one primarily fueled by personal anger at Obama.  Disappointment, sure, but even MacArthur’s initial appeal to those who “feel betrayed by Obama’s expansion of the war in Afghanistan and mercenary forces in Iraq” seems slightly off.  Those feeling betrayed by Obama’s expansion of the Afghanistan War really have only themselves to blame, in that he told us that this was precisely his intent.  But he also managed to accomplish what all successful presidential candidates do – he convinced a lot of voters that he really believed what they did, even when he said he didn’t.  People rationalized that he just said all that stuff about Afghanistan because he had to if he wanted to get elected.

Robert Naiman, Policy Director of the organization Just Foreign Policy, goes so far as to say that:

A key organizing principle of a progressive primary has to be something that many may find at first counterintuitive: it must not be directed against President Obama.

What it should be is directed at some of his policies and aimed at building and demonstrating a political base for a series of alternatives.

Over the last two years, many of us have heard more than one variation on the story of FDR telling those to his left that if they wanted him to do something, they had to go out and “make me do it.”  And surely there is something to that – you’ve got to somehow demonstrate a motivated constituency to be a political player.  This is precisely why we should be seriously thinking about what we can do during the upcoming primary season which seems, realistically, to be about the only time we’re going to have much chance of exerting pressure on Obama to rethink his wars.  What would be the goal of a primary challenge?  Several hundred delegates pledged to making the President do something different than he has been.

But, by the way, none of this is meant to suggest that foreign policy constitute the entire basis of a primary challenge, or even necessarily be its central element.  There seems little doubt that the basis for an antiwar candidacy exists – a December ABC News/Washington Post Poll found people answering “No” to the question “Do you think the war in Afghanistan has been worth fighting?” by a 60-34 percent margin (with only 25 percent of Democrats saying “Yes”) –  and this is with a minuscule amount of mainstream political opposition to the war.  Still, the cynical view that the domestic casualty rate – 500 U.S. military deaths and 4,500 wounded last year – is simply not high enough to turn this war into a mass issue may well be correct.

Either way, though, an ideal primary challenge would also take on the bank bailout, offer a broad government investment strategy and argue for improving the health care reform law as well.  And, of course, today’s wars represent only the tip of the iceberg: The U.S. currently maintains anywhere from seven hundred to a thousand foreign military bases and spends nearly as much as on its military apparatus as the entire rest of the world combined – because it is locked in a Cold War mindset in which Al Qaeda has replaced the Soviet Union.

In arguing that “Lefty focusing on Obama distracts us from the work we need to do,” New Left veteran Richard Flacks says:

Progressive organizations need to reinvest in college campus organizing.

And as far as focusing on Obama – the man goes, I think his critique is correct, but so far as certain of the President’s policies go, they seem to be precisely the thing that a progressive organization would organize against on a college campus.

As the man once said, “The times, they are a changing” and it seems a shame to let the libertarians be the only ones saying anything about that next year.

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Tom Gallagher

Tom Gallagher

Tom Gallagher is a former Massachusetts State Representative and the author of 'The Primary Route: How the 99% Take On the Military Industrial Complex.' He lives in San Francisco.

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